Autism, Head Lag and the Core of Wellbeing

Newborn head lag

A newborn, when lifted from a supine position by its arms, will  not be able to hold its head up. The head flops back in what is commonly referred to as “head lag.”  This is entirely normal for a brand new baby, and almost everyone assumes this is the result of the baby not yet having had an opportunity to develop  strength in his or her neck muscles.

By the age of three or four months, however, a naturally developing infant will be able to bring the head up in line with the body. It is commonly believed that the baby has now developed the requisite neck strength to bring the head up, but, in fact, something far more “global” is taking place here.

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Can you envision how a deep internal “core,” and not neck muscles, are stabilizing the head / torso relationship?

Given a variety of opportunities for free, natural movement, especially in the belly-to-earth position (expanded “tummy time”) and with a minimum amount of time spent in contraptions such as car seats, strollers, bouncy seats, swings, and an array of artificial carriers, most babies will develop a deep postural “core.” This serves to stabilize the full length of the spine so that the head is anchored in line with the spine and torso. The core that a baby naturally develops is very different from the “core strength” popularized at the gym or in many exercise and workout routines. True core strength is deeper—bone deep—and functions as an interplay of aligned bones and elastic muscles working together. This core allows superficial muscles at the surface of the abdomen (six-pack-abs) to relax and frees neck muscles to do the job they are primarily intended to do—move the skull in yes/no/maybe-so-type movements. This deep postural core is essential to a baby’s developing health, acting as the engine that drives the firing of uncountable synapses that forge connections between the body and the brain. If not disrupted, this “core of wellbeing,” of muscle and bones in synch together, provide a framework that supports a balanced interplay between aligned bones and elastic muscles that allows the body to  simultaneously be both relaxed and strong, flexible and stable, as well as fluid and solid throughout a whole lifetime.

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Lack of core strength is evident in many babies who show evidence of head lag past four months of age.

Whereby it is perfectly natural for a newborn to experience head-lag, it is not normal for a six-month-old baby to do so. A recent study revealed the stunning fact that 90%—this bears repeating: ninety per cent!—of children who were diagnosed with symptoms of autism at ages three and four, had shown prior evidence of head-lag at six-months of age. (Concerned parents can take comfort from the fact that, while there clearly appears to be a correlation between head lag at six-months and a future diagnosis of autism, 37% of those babies showing head lag at this age did not develop any symptoms of autism). Researchers interpreted the results of this study to mean that head lag might be an early symptom of autism and that infants who “show developmental delays in head and neck control may be at increased risk for autism.”

It is important to know that lack of “core” development, and not neck strength, is the usual suspect in the underlying problem in head lag. This also means that those factors that contribute to a lack of core stability (such “core killers” as too much time on the back or in a semi-reclining position in strollers, car seats, and other sitting devices) may play a role in this complicated equation. According to Nobel Laureate neurobiologist Roger Sperry, “90% of the stimulation and nutrition to the brain is generated by the movement of the spine.” In other words, movement is the engine that drives the building of the brain/nervous system. I would add to this that such movement must be in keeping with a universal human design that includes a biologically-driven mandate for developing a balanced interplay between aligned bones and a strong, elastic “core” of postural support. Understanding what this means is complicated by the fact that, as stated earlier, the core of stability that healthy babies develop on their own is not the same kind of “core strength” associated with most fitness programs and gym workouts. For this reason, it is a serious mistake to try to train core strength into a baby’s body by assisting them in front-shortening exercises like baby sit-ups or crunches. The kind of authentic core development babies need is best developed through re-creating natural belly-to-earth experiences, since limited amounts of this activity are often the cause of such core weakness in the first place. Information about the natural human design is well-described in this video.

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Placed on a timeline that marks the rise of autism, such events as too much time restricted on the back and in sitting devices and contraptions match the sharp rise of this and other conditions. Fortunately, the great majority of babies thrive, and while there are likely to be a number of factors that contribute to the rising epidemic of autism spectrum disorders and other neurologically-based problems, one possible factor that is consistently overlooked is disruption of the kind of natural movement that is essential to turning on and building a fully-functioning nervous system.

Please consider this:  If it is true that a) belly-to-earth experiences often play an important role in developing core stability (as detailed here); and b) development of core stability is an important factor in building a fully-functioning nervous system (as detailed here); and c) lack of core stability is a factor in many (if not all) instances of head lag, Then:  it stands to reason there could be a correlation between insufficient belly-to-earth time and future autism.

At the very least, such a scenario demands a closer look. In order to do this effectively, researchers must first understand the baseline concepts of how the body is designed to move and develop naturally. Detailed information about this is finally becoming available, as seen on this video, after having been largely overlooked and misunderstood all these years. As more of this information comes to light, the next step will be to examine what role certain practices, such as back sleeping (more about the risks of SIDS here) and the use of sitting and carrying devices, play in interfering with natural healthy development. Without the benefit of a direct and personal experiential connection with this, researchers are often left with incomplete information for understanding and interpreting results. It helps when the person doing the research not only understands the foundational concepts involved, but also has the benefit of experiencing how this works in his or her own body. Such an experiential connection is necessary for developing a comprehensive understanding of the underlying concepts at play and how they affect unnatural movement patterns, unintegrated reflexes, learning challenges, behavior issues and the long list of developmental anomalies children struggle with each day.

Further credence is given to a possible autism/head lag/core stability relationship by the fact that evidence continues to mount that many children who struggle with autism and a variety of developmental delays and neurological disorders, show steady improvement of symptoms when given the experience of revisiting previously-missed opportunities to build the natural core through aligned movement. As aligned movement aids in mapping the brain, core development improves, along with many children’s symptoms. If natural movement is an effective pathway to healing and repair for many children, it’s hard to imagine that disruption of such essential movements didn’t play a role in contributing to these problems in the first place.

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1 Joanne E. Flanagan, Rebecca Landa, Anjana Bhat and Margaret Bauman (2012); Head Lag in Infants at Risk for Autism: A Preliminary Study.  American Journal of Occupational Therapy, Volume 60, 5577-5585.

Autism graph based on statistics from Centers for Disease Control—cultural details added.

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One response

  1. I am very excited to read about the implications of posture on brain development with infants. Also as children get older, the right angle chairs at school position them in a posterior tilt of the pelvis which would interfere with aligned bones and elastic muscles and brain function. We do have a huge rise in Attention deficit disorder as well which is probably linked to unnatural posture and biomechanics as we make our children sit for hours a day in positions unnatural for the human body. As the child gets older and does compartmentalized fitness exercises for the core, they get further out of alignment and many wind up on anti-depressants. In the US, one in five people takes antidepressants and poor posture is the norm. There is definitely a connection and in the aging population who rounds over into a slump, there is Alzheimer’s and congestive heart failure. As Kathleen shows in her books, other cultures who follow natural alignment principles dont shrink as they age or wind up with arthritis and hip replacements. We are a nation out of alignment and sync with mother nature. I have revamped yoga to consider natural biomechanics and I call it YogAlign. The numbers of yogis with hip replacements is now happening very frequently to teachers such as Beryl Bender, Judith Lasater, Patricia Walden, Joel Kramer and Dharma Mittra. Time for a global assessment of yoga and all fitness exercises and a reconnection to our natural core. Thank you Kathleen for your brilliance and dedication to illuminating us all to natural posture solutions. Michaelle at YogAlign.

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